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Body talk;Career development

First impressions at interview are crucial, so make sure you send the right non-verbal signals, warns John Caunt

What is the most important ingredient of a suc-cessful interview? Competent ans-wers to the questions? Maybe not. For all the care that interviewers take to analyse candidates' responses, it has been shown that non-verbal impressions are often the elements that influence them most powerfully.

Non-verbal communication is a mixture of spontaneous and intentional cues - posture, gestures, facial expressions - which may reinforce or contradict what is being said. Where contradictions occur, people are more likely to believe the non-verbal signals because, for the most part, they are harder to fake.

The first two minutes of an interview are critical. Studies have found that many interviewers reach firm conclusions about candidates during this time - and that they are particularly influenced during the rest of the interview by evidence that supports their initial view.

You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and so it can be worth taking some time to rehearse your entrance. You may feel stupid practising in front of a mirror, but nobody else need know.

You should aim to be natural and relaxed. Give attention to the way you walk into the room, greet members of the interview panel, smile and sit down. This can all play a significant part in determining whether you get the job or not.

Next is the rapport you establish as the interview progresses. Eye contact has a major part to play in this. It has been shown that when eye contact occurs for less than 50 per cent of the time, interviewers may become uneasy with a candidate. Too much eye contact - more than 70 per cent - gives an impression of over-intensity.

Eye contact will, of course, be primarily focused on the person whose question you are answering, but make sure that you do not exclude other members of the interview panel.

Make sure that your posture does not betray any tension. Look relaxed and avoid folding your arms (a classic defensive posture), clenching your fists or fiddling with objects. Leaning forward slightly when the interviewer is speaking indicates an interest in what he or she is saying. The way you listen matters almost as much as the way you talk.

Mirroring the interviewer's body language is said to build rapport. Watch how often this happens quite unconsciously in normal conversation.

You should also be aware of signals from the interviewers. If they start to fidget or look out of the window, then you are losing them and you should round off your answer to the current question as quickly as possible.

Interviewers seeking to conclude an interview will often go into the so-called "leverage position" - hands on the table or chair, ready to stand up.

Frequency and timing of gestures and facial expressions are also important. Unfortunately, nerves can disrupt our natural behaviour. Smiling helps to build rapport but its impact is lost when nervous candidates smile at inappropriate moments or, in their anxiety to please, retain a fixed grimace throughout the proceedings.

Non-verbal communication is essentially subtle; don't try to force it. Hone your skills and awareness by observing yourself in real situations, such as meetings and one-to-one sessions.

In the face of all this, you could be excused for deciding to remain mute throughout the interview and concentrating on getting your body language right. Not recommended.

The rules of the game demand that you open your mouth. But not too much; remember that you can also talk yourself out of a job.

John Caunt was formerly director of personnel in a large FE college. He has 15 years' experience of staff selection.Next week: preparing a CV.

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